Last summer, the conservative writer David French wrote an essay for Time defending the political culture of his native South. While northern liberals believed “race is still the dominant political and cultural factor of Southern political life,” French argued, that was “too simplistic.”
French had in mind a case study for his theory: a Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate named Brian Kemp. Here was a “truly Southern man,” which meant he was “skeptical of elites” and never “ashamed of his faith.”
French was articulating a more nuanced version of a bedrock premise of Republican political identity. Republicans believe almost unanimously that the sins of the Jim Crow past have no bearing on their modern incarnation. The strongest and most absurd version of this argument, associated with Dinesh D’Souza, identifies Democrats as the eternal party of slavery and segregation (white southern conservatives used to be Democrats). Few conservatives take the argument to the absurd extremes of D’Souza, but weaker versions of it recirculate constantly, by such figures as Kevin Williamson, Gerard Alexander, and others.
Even anti-Trump conservative intellectuals like French persist in seeing racism as a vestigial trait, rather than the dominant characteristic of modern conservatism (and its white southern heart). Today’s culturally traditional, anti–big government conservatives fervently believe they are in no way the heirs to the culturally traditional, anti–big government of the Jim Crow era. They insist — and, I think, truly believe — that if brought back to 1965, they would be on the side of the good guys.
The appearance on the scene of Donald Trump has, shall we say, complicated the theory. What enabled Trump to outflank his rivals was his instinctive ability to see through the Republican Party’s story about its innocence, and by evading these comforting delusions, to speak to the true soul of its base. That is why his closing campaign message is about a race war against swarms of threatening criminal brown people. That is why Trump’s argument on behalf of his protégé, Ron DeSantis, is to call the black Democrat a “thief” while praising DeSantis as “a Harvard/Yale educated man.” A Harvard man and a Yale man! So much for French’s belief that the true bedrock of southern political identity is distrust of “elites.”
But if I were to pick the most historically resonant symbol of modern southern conservatism, I would select the same figure that French singled out: Brian Kemp. Like most Republicans, Kemp benefits from a variety of methods designed to suppress the votes of nonwhites: reducing the number of polling places, reducing early voting, imposing cumbersome bureaucratic requirements — which, in combination, discourage or disqualify a significant number of voters, of whom they know will disproportionately constitute minorities. Unlike most Republicans, Kemp has the benefit of holding the office of secretary of State, which gives him the power to shape the battlefield of his own personal election.
Kemp has seized the opportunity with gusto. As Josie Duffy Rice observes in a devastating op-ed, Kemp has cancelled 1.4 million voter registrations since 2012. Prosecutors in Georgia, acting in concert with Kemp’s agenda, have relentlessly pursued picayune or completely fanciful legal charges against people for the crime of trying to help the victims of his policies overcome the hurdles he has placed before them and cast votes. He charged one woman with two felonies for helping her partly blind father fill out an absentee ballot. He charged another organizer with the invented crime of “improper assistance in casting a ballot.”
In a written statement, Kemp attacked his critics as “outside agitators,” which of course is the exact language Jim Crow officials used against civil-rights organizers. It is also the same concept: In both cases, conservative white southern officials design policies to suppress the political power of their nonwhite residents, and activists from outside the state are among those who work to help them. Then as now, the principle of states’ rights and local autonomy is used to preserve an arrangement in which whites use undemocratic methods to maintain power.
It is certainly true that, as a matter of degree, the vote-suppression methods used by today’s Republicans pale beside those used by yesterday’s Jim Crow Dixiecrats. As a matter of principle, though, the cases are essentially identical. The conservative movement has mounted essentially no dissent whatsoever against the systematic use of vote suppression in Georgia or anywhere else, which is now a cornerstone of the party’s political formula. For all their self-delusional belief that they would be on the side of the civil-rights angels, the Republican who support or tolerate the Kemps of the world have made the same choices as the Jim Crow whites of the past.